THE SALMON OF KNOWLEDGE

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The Salmon of Knowledge is an ancient folk tale. Probably originally of Irish origin, the Islay variant of the story involves Finn McCool visiting Gortantoid and fighting an epic battle on the coast of Laggan Bay.

Fionn mac Cumhaill (sometimes known as Finn McCool) is a well-known warrior of Irish mythology, but he also features prominently in Hebridean folklore. There are many stories about Fionn and many variations within them, the most famous being that he built the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland as stepping stones to Scotland. Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa is also named after him.

While the various stories are multiple and sometimes contradictory, what they always have in common is that Fionn was a benevolent giant with near magical powers. He was a good runner and swimmer who eventually became the leader of a band of warriors known as the Feinne (or Fianna in Irish). According to the Hebridean legends, the Feinne was headquartered on the Isle of Skye. However, Fionn would often visit Islay which was his favourite place to relax.

When on Islay, Fionn and his fellow warriors stayed at a place called Hastainn, which is believed to be near present-day Gortantoid. Their cauldron is said to be buried here, near a waterfall called Eas Laigheann nan Sruth Seimh, where they rested after the Battle of the Staves, a bloody battle that took place on or near Laggan Bay. Fionn came to the rescue of the islanders who had been harassed by Norsemen and defeated the enemy by hurling short sticks (staves) at them as they retreated.

One well-known story surrounding Fionn mac Cumhaill is that of the Salmon of Knowledge.  According to Irish legend, the poet Finn Ecas spent seven years fishing for it and, when he finally caught his prize, gave it to Fionn with the instruction not to eat any of it. However, while cooking it Fionn burned his thumb on some of the hot fat and sucked on the burn to ease the pain. The wisdom of the salmon, concentrated in the small drop of oil, then transferred to Fionn himself. In the Islay legend many people were seeking the Salmon of Knowledge but it was caught by an elderly man when out fishing, who immediately recognised it and gave it to Fionn. Fionn ate the salmon and inherited its knowledge, making him the wisest man in the world.

The wisdom that Fionn inherited from the salmon ensured he was as known for his deep knowledge and good judgement as much as he was his exploits in battle. According to most Irish stories Fionn never died but is instead, like King Arthur, resting until the moment of greatest need; he will arise when the Dord Fiann, the hunting horn of the Feinne, is sounded three times. However, the Islay stories suggest Fionn died in the year 283 after which he went to Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever Young (sometimes known as an-t-eilean Uaine, the Green Island). While some interpret Tir nan Og as a mythological place of rest for the Celts, others believed it was a literal place off the west coast of Islay which could sometimes be seen among the mists towards the setting sun.